The quarters provided for us were as Spartan as was to be expected, all things considered, consisting mostly of stone beds carved directly from the living rock, with bundles of still-green Whisper grass for the mattresses. They had not really had time for anything more luxurious.
At least the hard floor had a nice soft carpet. I had no idea how they had managed to cart so many carpets over from the abandoned village, but I was thankful for it all the same. Without it absorbing the noise, the echoes in the caves would have been horrendous.
“Everyone settled in?” a voice called from the entrance. We all looked up and saw a jovial man, about my height, wearing a strong mail hauberk with a sinblade belted at his side.
I indicated that everyone else should continue packing, and walked over to the man. “Sir Nicholas Wreth,” I said, holding out my hand. “And yes, we are getting settled in. Just another ten minutes or so.”
The man took my hand and shook it firmly. “Captain Theodore Gaven. Pleasure. I heard how you helped our youngsters.” He inclined his head gravely. “You have my sincerest gratitude for that.”
“These youngsters are better fighters than you will ever be,” Jack called from where she was laying her bedroll on the stone frame she was expected to sleep on—once again, as far from the rest of us as possible.
The captain did not seem to take the insult to heart. He just grinned and released my hand. “Kids these days, huh? They grow up so fast. One second you are watching them toddle along, the next they think they are adults just because they killed a big dog.”
“You are only ten years older than us, Theo! My mom wanted me to marry you once!”
This was clearly a long-standing friendly rivalry, and I knew better than to get in the middle of that. So I just ignored it. “Captain. Miss Orange said to speak to you about the bandits. I am assuming you cannot provide us with any additional troops—”
“That is correct,” he said, smiling sadly.
“—but I was hoping you could at least supply some intelligence. Maps of the forest, specific locations they might be making camp, descriptions of their leaders, anything along those lines.”
“We have maps,” he confirmed. “They are about five years out of date, but they are quite extensive. The precise details may be a little off, but the broad strokes will be right. And, obviously, they will not have any information on the monsters.”
“Do you?” I asked. “Have any information on the monsters that inhabit the forest? I am assuming they do, that is.” I allowed myself a small smile. “You would not call it the Hellwood if it was the only place in a hundred miles without monsters.”
The guard chuckled. “Unfortunately, you are right. But the last person we sent in there, maybe six months ago, did not really have time to observe the behavioral patterns of the local monster species. What with all the running for his life and everything.”
“Good news is, the bandits should be thinned out a bit by now. I would estimate about fifty left.”
“Even if that figure it accurate—which I doubt very much,” Harold said as he walked up. “The survivors will know these things. They will know where the monsters hunt, where the dangerous terrain is, and which plants are poisonous.”
“We will be fighting them on their home ground,” I agreed. I hated doing that.
But Gaven shook his head. “No, they have only been there for a couple days.”
“They have been sitting in the Hellpit for only a couple months,” the archer reminded the guardsman. “The rest of the time, they were nomadic, running from place to place to stay ahead of the monsters. They probably know quite a bit about the Hellwood.”
I picked up on the subtext of what he said. “So the town has had dealings with these bandits before? They tried to raid you, or seek shelter behind your wall or something? Perhaps they were even traders before the monsters.”
Harold turned to Gaven.
Gaven shrugged. “You got most of it. They were not traders that I know of, but they were a couple dozen small gangs scattered around the area, harassing caravans and small villages. And then there were monsters, doing the job better than they ever could. They banded together to survive, but a lot still died. They tried to take over Grandsbriar before we had our wall, we stopped them.”
The cold dispassionate way he described it, with all the death and destruction just calmly implied in the background, was rather disturbing when I thought about it too much. These people had seen far too much.
Then he clapped my on the back, grinning again. “But, no matter what the plan is, you are not going to be doing it tonight. Head down to the tavern, get dinner, do not get too drunk, and I will see you all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed tomorrow morning. All right?”
We all waved him off, and the friendly captain left without another word. Around the corner, we heard the door on the barricade creak open and then slam shut.
“We are lucky we got a private room,” Norn noted as he walked up to my side. He was already in his smallclothes, ready to hop right into bed. “Normally when space is at a premium like this, everyone is just tossed into one or two giant rooms.”
“Yes, we are the luckiest men on earth,” Roark grunted darkly. “Sleeping on rock beds is only a single step down from the stuff the king himself uses! He might get mad about the competition.”
“Roark,” I said with a sigh. “What is with you? you are a ranger, you have bedded down worse places than this. You have been acting strange ever since we reached the village.” I stepped closer and lowered my voice. “Monsters or not, we need to pull together.”
He shrugged me off. “Let us just go eat.”
I knew better than to push him on this. When we first met, it had taken months to get him to say more than a couple words a day to me. So I just nodded and turned to the rest. “Who else is coming?”
In the end, everyone but Jack decided to leave their weapons behind and come along. She cited catching up with that girl, Emily Hall, as the reason. Something about the way she said it seemed off to me, but we were in a safe place, and she was not my daughter. I was not responsible for her outside of combat situations.
Vale, of course, led the way out of our quarters, and led us back to the tavern we had seen at the entrance. I had no idea how he did it, but the man had an excellent sense of direction in cities. Or maybe he just followed the scent of food and ale.
We sat down at a stout four-legged stone table big enough for all five of us—while thankful that the chairs were made of wood—and were greeted almost immediately by a large-breasted young woman, who lit the candle in the center of the table to provide us some more light.
“Harold!” she cried cheerfully. “I did not know you were back!” Her smile faded briefly. “Is Jack—”
“Jack’s fine,” he assured her quickly. “She just wanted to spend time with Emily.”
“I imagine too much time among men is annoying for any woman,” Vale said with a grin.
Roark grunted. “She should not be spending any time among men…”
I kicked him under the table and managed to smile at the waitress before she could puzzle out what he had said and be offended by it. “Do you take silver coin?”
She frowned at me. “Of course we do. We are not dirt farmers here, we have to be able to deal with travelers from all over. What did you expect, us to try and barter some live chickens for your meal?”
Thankfully, before I could shove my foot any further down my throat, Vale stepped in. “Actually, considering the large social changes brought about by the monsters, I suspect Sir Wreth simply thought your currency might be based around that.” He smiled ruefully. “Sinheart teeth, perhaps.”
“Well, we are not that far gone yet, I can assure you. Now—” She grinned at me. “Did I hear him correctly? you are a knight? A dashing champion of the realm, rescuing fair maidens in distress?”
I was not so old as to be blind to the subtle flash of her cleavage. I smiled awkwardly. “I…ah, yes, I suppose I am. But I am a married knight of the realm. With children and so on as well. You know, so…” I trailed off. “Yes.”
“And now you know why we are all still surprised he ever managed to get married in the first place,” Vale quipped. The rest of the table laughed, including the waitress. She sashayed away to the bar, presumably to fetch us beers.
“Thank you for that,” I deadpanned at my blond subordinate.
He shrugged. “Come on, sir, you have always been bad with women. If I had not done something to break the ice, you would have stammered your way through another ten minutes of awkward conversation.”
The fact that he had something of a point did not make me any more inclined to thank him—honestly, that is—for his assistance.
Luckily for him, the waitress came back a moment later with five foaming mugs of ale, balanced precariously on a broad wooden tray. “Here you are, gentlemen. Sorry we do not have much of a selection, but we left in a hurry.”
“What do you have, precisely?” Vale asked, smiling disarmingly.
She just pointed at a flat portion of the rock wall, which had the names of various foods written across it in chalk, with a neat and precise hand. “That is everything right there. Do you need a few minutes?”
The list was quite extensive, and a few of the things on there—squirrel, fox, and rat most especially—were more than a little disturbing. But I had to admit it made it easier to figure out what you wanted.
“Ingenious,” Vale murmured. “A simple and elegant solution.”
While he was busy admiring the forest and ignoring the trees, I rolled my eyes and turned to the waitress. “That baked chicken sounds good for me.”
“Same,” Roark grunted.
Norn took a long look at the list, frowning. “No beef?”
The waitress chuckled. “Definitely no beef.”
The big man shrugged. “All right, then chicken for me too.”
“Steamed squirrel for me, thanks,” Harold said with a small smile.
There was a long pause as everyone turned to the last member of our party.
“…Vale,” I snapped. “Pick something to eat.”
He nearly jumped. “What? Yes, yes, of course. Ah…potatoes and gravy for me, thanks.”
“And some bread for the table,” Harold called as our waitress moved away.
I eyed the young hunter. “Something is going on with you.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Excuse me?”
Vale took a sip of his beer, frowned, put it down, and turned his attention to the archer. “You know, now that he mentions it, he is right. You are…” He chuckled. “You are playing a joke on us, are not you?”
Harold tried to stifle a grin, utterly failed, and gave up. “I am sorry. I should have…” He chuckled again. “Sorry. It is not really cruel. And it is not…you will figure it out soon enough. It will be funny, I promise.”
I glared at him. “’Not really cruel’ is not exactly setting my mind at ease, here. Now—”
Then the waitress came back with out food.
And the joke became obvious.
What was on our plates—mine, Roark’s, and Norn’s—was not chicken. In addition to the odd shape (long, thin strips of meat, no bone), it was a strangely textured thing, more like the one time I had been forced to eat lizard than any meat from a mammal. It also did not smell like mammal. It smelled like boiled vegetables.
While Harold tried to stifle his laughter, I rubbed my forehead. “Excuse me miss? There seems to have been a slight miscommunication.” I pointed to the meat on my plate. Next to me, Roark was poking his gingerly. “What is this?”
“Chicken,” she insisted.
I nodded patiently. “Yes, yes…what kind of chicken?”
“Dire chicken baked in our stone oven.”
I glared at Harold.
He just grinned like an idiot and shrugged. “Come on, we told you ages ago that all our livestock was dead or dire, did not we? Not to mention that everything we had fled when the wall got crushed. What were you expecting?”
“Where did you get this, then?” I asked, directing the question at the waitress—who was also trying not to laugh, but doing a better job of it than the archer—who was still waiting for a response. “I doubt you managed to domesticate a few dozen of these things in two days.”
“You cannot domesticate dire chickens,” she corrected me. “At least, Miss Orange did not have any success over the last year. But the delvers found a big colony of them running wild in the caves down below. So we have been catching them for food and so on.”
I heard the sound of a plate scraping against the table, and turned to see that Norn was already eating the strange meat with his hands. When he saw me staring, he just shrugged. “What? it is pretty good.”
I turned back to the waitress and nodded. “Thank you very much for the food.”
She nodded in turn, and plopped a big steaming basket of bread rolls in the center of the table, a little bit disturbingly close to the candle for my taste. Then she sauntered off, not a care in the world.
The food…was an acquired taste. It was not bad, so to speak, it was just dry and with a unique flavor I had not quite had before. Something strange and smoky, with a spicy aftertaste that I had never encountered without foreign peppers being involved.
But it did not kill us, which after almost two weeks of trail rations, was about all we required out of a meal. So we just ate, mostly in silence, and when we were done headed back to our quarters to sleep.